When you first arrive in Australia you’ll immediately notice things that make it feel like a different country.
But depending on where you came from, things can also feel familiar enough that it’s easy to think you understand more about the culture than you really do. Especially if you came from America or the UK.
There are loads of articles, blogs, and websites dedicated to translating Australian slang and explaining Aussie’s many mannerisms. But you’ll never know how accurate they are until you get here.*
When I first got here, I wanted to fast-track the acclimatization process, so I spent the first few weeks asking everyone this question:
“What are three things I need to know about living in Australia that aren’t immediately obvious?”
Below are some of the most memorable and useful answers to that question. If you’re new to Australia, I hope these help. If you’ve been here for a while, back me up or add your own tips in the comments.
Eleven Tips for Newcomers to Australia
Burgers & Beetroot
This is the very first tip someone gave me and it paid off almost immediately. If you order a burger, check to see if they put a slice of beetroot on it. This may be controversial, but I’m fairly sure most non-Aussies would agree, beetroot has no business on a burger. The same goes for pineapple or fried egg, which are also not uncommon. Sometimes a burger will come with all three. You don’t want to find this out on your first bite. Check under the bun first.
Store Bought Sausages
While we’re on the subject of meat, backyard BBQs (barbies) are a big part of Australian culture. If you’ve been invited to one, it’s customary to show up with something to chuck on the grill. But here’s the thing, you may be quietly judged by what you bring. And one thing you never want to bring is store-bought sausages. Always get your snags from a butcher. They’re bigger, better, and come with cred. Bring some beer too. Also, it’s “prawns” not “shrimp,” no matter what Crocodile Dundee says.
The CFO at my first job in Australia got an opportunity to go work in the US office, so he flew over to San Francisco to meet the team. As a way to get to know each other, the C-suite peeps took him to a baseball game where he promptly got shitfaced and had to be put in a cab before the top of the sixth. The next day they asked him “What happened? We thought Aussies could drink.” He was embarrassed and confused, explaining that he had no idea how he could have gotten so drunk when he drank light beer the whole game. Here’s what he learned the hard way: in Australia “light beer” means less alcohol. In America, it means less calories. And yes, he got the gig.
When I was in New York it wasn’t uncommon to leave the office at 9 pm and have dinner at 10 pm. When I got to Sydney people would sometimes go to the pub for lunch and never come back. This confused the hell out of me. If the work/life balance in NYC was in the red, in Sydney it was well and truly in the black. If you’re ambitious and used to working long and hard, this can be a weird adjustment. Just know you don’t always have to go, you can drink light beer if you have things to do after, but whatever you do, don’t miss your shout. And make sure you understand all the beer glass sizes in Australia before you order. From largest to smallest, it goes Pints, Schooners, and Midis. In most places.
Tall Poppy Syndrome
If you’re more driven than thirsty, remember that outward ambition can be seen as a negative in Australia. Tread carefully and keep your head down. I’ve written about this before and even spoken about it on TV. It’s real and you’ll be better off being aware of it.
There was a time when I was single on the sunny shores of Sydney and curious about dating. This was pre-Tinder, so I asked an Aussie mate about it and they told me “Australians don’t date. They get drunk, root, and then spend the next three months trying to work out what happened.” I found this to be true. Dating apps may have since made things better, or worse. But don’t be surprised if your one-night stand turns into a three-month clusterfuck.
If someone tells you that “you look like you could throw a good punch,” don’t hit them. This is a term of endearment. It means they think you look like you’d be good in bed. It’s terrible and hilarious and I still don’t know what the right way to respond is. If you hear these words spoken to you, good luck. Just remember, if you do take a swing, you could end up in a three-month clusterfuck.
“Good on ya mate”
I went to the dentist recently and while he was digging around in my face hole, he and the hygienist chatted cheerfully about maxillofacial surgery. Turns out Queensland is a great place for oral surgeons to train because there are so many bar fights. Guys come in with broken jaws every weekend. So if you find yourself in a situation where someone seems like they want to throw an actual punch, use these magic words: “Good on ya mate.” Keep saying this over and over and odds are they’ll eventually leave you alone. I don’t know why this works, but it could keep you out of the dentist’s chair.
Rubbish, Garbage & Trash
I’ve been here nearly 20 years and I still can’t work out what the difference between them is. I just know there is one. It’s all recycling to me.
Plan Your Holidays
There’s no room for spontaneous holidays in Australia. If you decide to wing it and find a place to stay when you get there, the place you’re most likely to stay is in your car. There’s not a lot of inventory when it comes to accommodation and everything books out. I once booked a place three years in advance. So book ahead. This applies to hotels, motels, Airbnbs, and even campgrounds. Most National Park camping areas are beautiful except for the fact that all the sites are right next to each other. This is to help prevent bush (forest) fires. It makes sense, but I can pretty much guarantee you will have drunk bogans six feet to either side of your tent. If you were hoping for a quiet night under the stars camping down under may disappoint. If you know what you’re doing, camping illegally on your own is the go, but you didn’t hear that from me.
America has everything. Australia has a lot.
Australia may look big on the map, but it has the population of New York State and the economy of California. Once you understand this, some things start to make more sense. It’s still very much an island, and like most other islands I’ve been to, it can sometimes be hard to find what you’re looking for. Your options are: Accept. Improvise. Or order online. And above all else, be patient.
The flip side is that the natives are mostly friendly, the lifestyle can be idyllic, and things are getting better here all the time.
So, if you’ve just landed in Australia, welcome. Hopefully, these tips will fast-track you to fitting right in.
But if you find yourself struggling and want a fellow ex-pat to commiserate with, you know where to find me.
*I’ve only heard “fair dinkum” legitimately spoken out loud once in nearly twenty years.